Cindy: Hang on to your soccer ball and watch out for wild boars. . . have we got an adventure for you! Keir Graff’s new middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle (2017) is pure, wacky fun. [Editor’s note: Keir is both the executive editor of Booklist and the editor emeritus of The Booklist Reader.]
Protagonist Brian’s summer plans focus on winning soccer tournaments. That is, until his father joins a South Pole scientific expedition and exiles Brian to his aunt and uncle’s house in Boring, Illinois, which lives up to its name. When he arrives, Brian is plunked down in front of a computer next to his annoying cousin Nora to help his uncle beta test his new online educational software, Summer’s Cool—which is anything but.
But after an errant soccer kick, trouble finds Brian just as easily as it finds many bored 11-year-old boys, and before you can say “grounded,” he’s getting the first of many lectures from Uncle Gary, which he appreciates as much as you’d expect.
I hate it when parents act like they’re lawyers. We all knew that Nora and I were in trouble, but instead of just handing out the punishment, he had to walk us through each step like he was convincing the jury we were guilty.
Deep in a forest they aren’t supposed to enter, Brian and Nora find a castle and Cosmo, the youngest member of the zany van Dash family. The pair helps Cosmo dispense with an infestation of giant wasps, but that’s only the first of problems facing the van Dashes and our young heroes.
A father of two boys, Graff understands his audience and has scored a header with this intelligent and humorous—if occasionally sophomoric—adventure. The great cover art might sell it before you get a chance to booktalk it, and the response that I had at our middle school book club last week indicates that I’ll need a few more copies. Don’t miss the quirky fun!
Lynn: What kid doesn’t love the idea of an unpredictable adventure? Add a gloriously ramshackle house packed with dusty treasures, uneven floors, and secret passages, and it becomes irresistible, particularly in the face of Uncle Gary and Aunt Jenny’s helicopter parenting and reliance on bland technology. Brian, going nuts tied to a computer all day, cannot resist the allure of the adventurous Van Dash clan, which seems to exist on the edge of time. He can’t help but jump in to help the Van Dashes locate a missing uncle, fight City Hall, evade wild boar, and try to save the Matchstick Castle from demolition.
This joyously madcap story celebrates summer, real-life adventures big and small, and even a bit of risk-taking. Not too many kids have neighbors like the Van Dashes, but far too many of them live digitally. This charming romp should inspire kids to employ the perfect antidote to a Summer’s Cool lifestyle, which means going outside and having fun!
P.S. Don’t miss Daniel Kraus’s feature on The Matchstick Castle with additional backstory here.